Children eight years old and under average over two hours of “screen time” (watching videos, playing games, etc.) a day. This includes using apps on tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices. A recent study by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital shows that many apps are abusing the developmental vulnerabilities of preschool-aged children to get them to watch advertisements and make in-app purchases. The study notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends elimination of advertising in apps marketed to children 5 and under, while finding that 35 percent of the apps studied (and 54 percent of free apps studied) interrupted play with advertising videos.
The study further concludes that in the 135 apps reviewed, there are “high rates of mobile advertising through manipulative and disruptive methods. These results have implications for advertising regulation, parent media choices, and apps’ educational value.” The study found that various applications falsely marketed apps as free, then manipulated the user—the child—to make a purchase later on in order to continue playing the game. Many apps disguised advertisements as gameplay. Often, popular characters from the games themselves urged the child to make purchases.
Although apps are known for containing advertisements and trying to persuade users to make purchases, the critical piece here is the targeted age of these users: under 5 years old. The study explains that “when advertisements are combined with rewards, both cognitive and emotional processes respond to persuasion. In the case of the gamified ads we documented—those involving watching ads to collect tokens or gameplay items—children under 6 years may be especially susceptible to this approach because of their responsiveness to positive reinforcers.” In addition to being more easily persuaded by positive reinforcement, preschoolers are not quite capable of understanding the motivations of those on the other side of the advertisements.
On October 30, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Center for Digital Democracy, and 20 other consumer and public health advocacy organizations, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The Communications & Technology Law Clinic in the Georgetown Institute for Public Representation (IPR) assisted in drafting and submitting the letter. The letter urges the FTC to address this issue and hold the app developers accountable. It notes the FTC’s own principle that “advertising and promotional messages should be identifiable as advertising,” which is found in the FTC Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements. Finding these app practices to be deceptive to young children, the letter asks the Commission to launch an investigation into the Android apps targeted at children.
Jenny Radesky, M.D. from Mott’s Children’s Hospital, says that the findings in the study have “important implications for advertising regulation, the ethics of child app design, as well as how parents discern which children’s apps are worth downloading.” Many of the apps were marketed as educational or free. It appears, Radesky says, that many apps are focused more on making money than on the child’s experience. The Director of IPR, Angela Campbell, says that “distracting features and frequent advertising exposure reduces whatever limited educational value these games might have in the first place.”
The two parties whose rights are at issue are the children (along with their parents) and the app developers. In the discussion of the study, it stresses that young children “cannot understand the motivations of the app’s designer. Thus, a serious discussion of how to balance the needs of advertisers and the rights of children is needed.” It is intuitive to see how the rights of young children and their parents, especially when using an application that is marketed as educational, are at risk with these manipulative practices. It’s more difficult to understand the depth of the advertiser’s side of this balancing act. The CCFC letter contends that these deceptive app practices are a result of Google’s hybrid monetization theory.
According to Google, “hybrid monetization combines customized and targeted in-app purchase offerings with relevant ads in a variety of formats, with the goal of maximizing revenue and maintaining an experience to keep app users engaged.” Maximizing revenue is a certain short-term gain, but the long-term implications for children of this sort of interactive advertisement abuse are unclear. With such a vulnerable demographic in question, it feels reasonable to ask the FTC to protect young children and set certain restrictions on the “variety of formats” allowable for ads in preschool-aged apps, especially if they are advertised as free or educational.*
*Amara Lopez is an associate editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.